5 Alternatives To Car Camping This Summer

car camping
Jason Jones, Flickr

If you’re the outdoorsy type, it’s hard not to enjoy car camping, as long as you find a destination and campground that are compatible with your interests and needs. Not that I’m speaking from experience, but … let’s just say the romantic, roughing-it weekend my ex and I had planned in southwestern Colorado a few years ago turned into pitching a tent in a trailer park populated by elderly snowbirds.

If you’re carless, or want something more adventurous/rigorous/off-beat, or safe for your bad back, I’ve got a few alternatives for your consideration. The good news is, the price points for these adventures ensure there’s at least one that will fit your budget. Depending upon where your travel plans are taking you, some regions even specialize in these types of camping trips. So get online, do some research and don’t forget the sunscreen. Happy Trails.

Hut trip
There are hut systems located all over North America (as well as in other alpine terrain worldwide); perhaps the most famous are Colorado’s 10th Mountain Division Huts. Whether you’re a novice hiker or a backpacking machine, there’s a hut hike suited for you. Tip: book well in advance. You can sometimes find last-minute beds, but this type of trip really requires advance planning.

pack trip
Alan English CPA, Flickr

Pack trip
If mountains are your thing, get on a horse or mule and take a pack trip. The Sierras, Rocky Mountains, and Cascades in particular are known for their alpine scenery and well-regarded pack trains. Tip: there’s no reason you can’t do a pack trip if you’re a novice rider, but you need to choose the right outfitter and destination; many trips are for experienced riders (you can even bring your own horse sometimes).

Sea kayak
I love sea kayaking, but I’m too novice to attempt a big paddle on my own. When I was living in Seattle a couple of years ago, I found an outfitter who, for a reasonable price, took me on a private paddle out to one of the many deserted islets off of Puget Sound’s Whidbey Island. We camped, watched bald eagles, gorged on a Marionberry pie picked up en route, and what do you know? He taught me how to read a tide chart well enough to give me the confidence to try this type of mini-excursion by myself.

sea kayaking
UK Ministry of Defence, Flickr

Water taxi
Some coastal, riverfront, or lakeside destinations offer water taxis to get you to and from your campsite. Although Kauai no longer offers this service for return hikers coming off the famous Kalalau Trail, there are plenty of other exotic options. I once took a water taxi from Picton on the South Island of New Zealand, in order to embark on a two-day hike of the gorgeous Queen Charlotte Track. Bonus: a pod of dolphins kept pace with us the entire ride out.

Shuttle it
Sometimes, it’s just not practical or possible to do a backpacking or camping trip with a car. In a couple of weeks, for example, I’m going to do Colorado’s West Maroon Pass, which is a roughly 11-mile hike over the Elk Mountains, from Crested Butte to Aspen. Since I’m going it alone, I’m arranging for Dolly’s Mountain Shuttle to bring me back. This Gunnison Valley-based airport shuttle addition also offers summertime returns for hikers coming off the Pass. At $60 a seat (as long as they have more than one passenger), it’s worth the price to not have to sort out the logistics of a car swap or transport. Best of all, you can take a nap after all that walking.

The 10th Mountain Division Huts: Colorado’s Historic Legacy To Outdoor Lovers

Since moving back to Colorado last August, I’ve actively tried to gain more experience in backcountry pursuits. I’ve been a downhill skier all my life, but prohibitive costs and weekend warrior traffic are a drag. At this point in my life, I also find more enjoyment in the contemplative, peaceful nature of snowshoeing and nordic skiing.

My ultimate goal for the backcountry has always been to explore Colorado’s extensive and historic 10th Mountain Division Huts. It’s a long-standing source of shame that I’ve lived in this state off-and-on for 17 years, and have never stayed in a hut (pictured: McNamara Hut).

The non-profit hut system was established in the early ’80s by 10th Mountain Division veteran Fritz Benedict and a handful of other Aspen locals. Its origins date back to pre-World War II, however, when the U.S. War Department began training mountain troops for combat. Camp Hale, located near Colorado’s Eagle River Valley, was selected as the army training grounds for over 11,000 men, in December, 1942.

In January, 1945, the 10th Mountain Division found themselves in Italy, where, according to the website, “they played a crucial role in several battles.” During this time, many of the Division had developed a shared love of the mountains and Colorado. Post-war, a number of 10th Mountain vets settled here; some were instrumental in the founding of ski towns such as Vail and Aspen.

The hut system is in part a memorial to the soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division, and some of the early huts were built with donations from the family and friends of fallen vets. Today, the huts rely upon donations (click here to contribute) for construction, maintenance, and operation, which help to keep overnight fees low. The average bed runs about $30/night; it’s also possible to book the entire hut for a flat fee. It’s best to make reservations months in advance since the huts fill up, but if you become a member (fees range from $25/year to $1,000/lifetime), you’ll be able to participate in the 10th Division reservations lottery, and book early.

The 10th Mountain manages and takes reservations for all 29 of their off-the-grid huts. They’re connected by 350 miles of suggested routes, and range from cabins located fairly close to trailheads, to serious backcountry locales. Some of the huts are owned and operated by the Braun and Friends hut systems, near Aspen, as well as Summit Huts Association, near Breckenridge; information on all can be found on the 10th Mountain website, huts.org.nordic skiingMy interest in the huts goes back to childhood; my dad is a WWII vet, and prior to enlisting, his dream was to be part of the 10th Mountain so that he could ski and work with horses (along with mules, the animals were used to transport gear and explosives over the Alps). Instead, he joined the infantry, and moved to Colorado to attend veterinary school at Colorado A & M (now CSU) on the G.I. bill.

Today, at 86, Dad is one of the world’s foremost experts on equine medicine and behavior, and until a couple of years ago, he was still skiing. My love of Colorado must be in my DNA, because my parents met at A & M, and I grew up skiing in Colorado (Dad, along with a few colleagues, also founded the Sierra Veterinary Medical Association, or SVMA, over 50 years ago; like him, it’s still going strong). So. My need to do a hut trip has perhaps been biological imperative.

In the final days of 2012, I visited Crested Butte with the express purpose of learning how to do alpine touring (AT). It’s a discipline of nordic skiing that involves wider skis with convertible bindings, which enable you to ski on a “fixed” or “free” heel. The boots can also be switched into “walk” or “ski” mode. In traditional cross-country skiing, unlike downhill skiing, only the toe is fixed to the binding, and the skis are narrower.

You can tour uphill with the aid of “skins,” which are self-adhesive, reusable fitted liners that adhere to the bottom of your skis. The outer surface has a fibrous covering, which provides traction so that your skis don’t slip. When you’re ready to ski downhill, you peel off the skins, and away you go.

Note that ideally, you should never attempt any backcountry pursuit alone, or at least not without having your avalanche certification. Plenty of people do it, and every season sees totally preventable deaths (see end of story for tips, and where to get certified).

To give AT a try, I hooked up with Crested Butte Mountain Guides (photos above and below, owner Jayson Simon-Jones) for a half-day trip ($125), led by part-time guide Amy Stevens. Amy is adorable, but also admirably tough (ask her to tell you about her fall from an 80-foot cliff some time). She schooled me on AT basics, and we embarked on a four-mile round-trip tour of the backcountry of the Snodgrass Trail, just past the ski area of Mt. Crested Butte.
alpine touring
It was a glorious, two-hour skin up to the Lookout, which provided us with a view of the tiny town of Crested Butte and surrounding peaks. By contrast, the trip down took a matter of minutes, since we were effectively downhill skiing. I was hooked, and immediately began plotting how I could do a hut trip, given my lack of experience.

Fast-forward to early March. I’d enlisted Scott Messina, longtime field operator for the 10th Mountain and an employee of Aspen Alpine Guides, to take me and a fellow hut-virgin, E, on an AT trip to the McNamara Hut, outside of Aspen. One of the first of two original huts, McNamara was built in 1982 as a memorial to Margy McNamara, whose husband, the late Robert McNamara, served as Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968. It sleeps 16 on its two floors (which include bunk and single beds, and one private double).
10th Mountain hut
After meeting at the 10th Mountain office in Aspen, Scott drove us a few miles up Red Mountain Road to the Upper Hunter Creek trailhead, in the White River National Forest. The hut itself is just under five miles away, in the Hunter-Frying Pan Wilderness, at 10,306 feet. A recent dump meant there was loads of snow, making this a particularly scenic trip.

We could only stay one night because the beds were booked, but it was enough to provide us with a taste. E and I both share bad backs, so our primary concern was how we’d fare packing in our sleeping bags and other gear, as well as food. The huts are solar-powered, with gas cooking equipment and compost toilets in the outhouses. You source water by melting snow in huge stockpots atop the wood-burning stoves (at right, Jackal hut, similar in appearance to McNamara)

The trip in, mostly uphill, is considered intermediate. E and I quickly overheated and shed layers every 10 minutes, but we were entranced by the beauty of our surroundings. We skinned through snow-covered meadows, into aspen groves, and up through forest thick with spruce, Douglas fir, and Lodgepole pine. There were bear claw marks on trees and ermine prints in the snow. This time of year, much of the wildlife is hibernating or lying low, but the McNamara is actually one of the few huts closed in summer because it’s in the midst elk calving grounds (it’s open Thanksgiving through April 30). As we climbed, Scott told us about the moose he’d seen the previous weekend in the nearby Maroon Bells.
aspen
We arrived at the hut– a most welcome site if ever there was one– approximately four hours after setting out. The first to arrive, we shoveled snow, lit the stove, and hauled in buckets of snow for water. The hut itself was more than just functional: it was a cozy wooden cabin that reflected the conviviality that defines the hut trip experience. There were rows of built-in beds; communal dining tables; a book shelf and board games, and an open kitchen. The outhouse was outside on a small back deck, and a side room was stacked full of cords of wood.

While we changed into warm, dry clothes and got settled, our hutmates began to straggle in. It had started to snow, and the sun was setting. We ended up with a friendly group of six snowshoers and skiers, and by night’s end, we were sharing our food and drink. I put together a cheese plate; handcrafted elk sausage was passed around; wine was poured, and beers were cracked. As the snow outside intensified, we sat around talking the outdoor life. Two of the group, a young couple, had spent the previous night sleeping in snow cave they’d dug (by choice). “It only took a few hours,” the female half of the couple said. Talk about a match made in heaven.

For dinner, I prepared a pasta dish for E and Scott (as a food writer, I had to prove to myself that it’s possible to eat well on a hut trip, even when one has a crapped-out back) While we cleaned up, the other groups moved in to prepare their dinners. Later, two young women prepared S’mores to order for the rest of us using the wood-burning stove (my eternal devotion to these ladies).
aspen
That generosity is characteristic of the hut trip mentality. Sure, people visit for romantic getaways (if sharing a cabin with up to 14 other people can be considered as such) or for a solo escape. You certainly don’t have to mingle or be an extrovert, but you’ll likely be depriving yourself of some great conversation and experiences if you don’t. It’s so rare these days to connect to other people in an environment that prohibits the beeping, blinking, ringing, honking distractions of daily life. A hut stay, for lack of any other description, is pure.

The next morning, we powered down breakfasts of instant oatmeal mixed with almond butter (my pre-hardcore workout fave), and looked in wonder from the front porch at the thick frosting of powder that coated the trees. Scott suggested we skin up the north face of Bald Knob, nearly 1,000 feet up from where we stood, so that we could have a downhill sesh before heading back to the trailhead. Despite E’s and my initial doubts about skinning a steep ascent, Scott was, as always, patient and encouraging, and distracted us with information about flora, fauna, and avi safety (he teaches certification classes). Before we knew it, we’d reached the summit.

It was thoroughly rewarding. We could look down upon the entire valley, and over the Elk Mountains. There was also a front moving in, so we stripped off our skins, converted our bindings and boots, and thigh-burned our way through unmarked powder back down to the hut.

By the time we made it back to our truck at the trailhead, it was a white-out, but that’s honestly the time I most enjoy running and cross-country pursuits (as opposed to downhill, in which I’m an utter wuss about weather). It’s like I’m in my own country, a place where the only sound is the whoosh of my feet moving through drifts of snow, and my own breath. For just a brief moment, the world is muffled and still, but my connection to it is far more tangible than that of my daily life spent behind a computer. It feels like a good day to be alive.
backcountry
How to safely experience the backcountry

  • Avalanches occur due to the convergence of a series of conditions. Never treat a backcountry outing casually, especially when these conditions are ripe.
  • If you’re not experienced at backcountry pursuits, get a guide or go with friends who have certification.
  • Always check conditions and let someone know where you’re going and when you’ll be back before heading out.
  • Have the proper avi gear with you, with will include a shovel, beacon, and probe.
  • Depending upon where you live, get a backcountry rescue card. The 10th Mountain offers CORSAR (Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue) for $3.00/year, or $12.00/five years. To quote their site, “Money generated from the sale of these cards goes to the Colorado Search and Rescue Fund, which then provides reimbursement for expenses incurred during search and rescue missions.” It can not only mean the difference between life and death; it can save you and taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in the event of a mishap. It’s the cost of a PBR; no excuses!

[Photo credits: McNamara and Jackal huts, 10th Mountain Division; skiers, Jayson Simon-Jones; aspen backcountry, Flickr user KR1212; Bald Knob, Laurel Miller; white-out, Flickr user Cangul]

Colorado Ski Resorts Offer Spring Break Deals, Special Events, Statewide

skierStill mulling over where to spend spring break, be it solo, or with friends or family? Colorado Ski Country USA resorts make it easy, with a handy online guide promoting special deals and events statewide throughout March and part of April.

In addition to loads of concerts and fun and endurance ski races at most resorts, there’s also the famed Elk Mountain Grand Traverse backcountry race from Aspen to Crested Butte, and Battle in the Bowls in Aspen Highlands. Crested Butte is also celebrating Colorado Passholder Appreciation Month through March 6; anyone holding a season pass, regardless of resort, can ski CB for $59.

Copper Mountain hosts the Copper Uncorked “working man’s wine festival” on March 10; think affordable vintages, and nontraditional pairings a la pizza, wings, and breakfast burritos. Aspen and Telluride are offering variations on “kids ski and stay free” programs, and Wolf Creek has Local Appreciation Days March 6 and 13, and April 3 and 7. Lift tickets are just $35/adult or student, $29/child/seniors. Get those plane tickets booked now!

[Photo credit: Flickr user Ben Moscona l Photography]

The Best Of The West: Classic Ski Lodges

tamarack lodgeDespite deceptively balmy temperatures in parts of the U.S., there’s still plenty of ski season left. Why not spend it staying at a classic ski lodge or chalet out West? These regal or groovy remnants from the early-to-mid-20th century are a dying breed, although some have been refurbished to good effect, while still retaining their original style. They also tend to offer friendly, personalized service, so you feel like a welcome guest, not just a number.

Classic places are often more affordable, and just as stylish and comfortable than their boutique or generic high-end chain counterparts. Even when they’re pricey, they’re a bit of living history that can give your ski trip a fun retro feel. Think racy Piz Buin and Lange boots ads, fondue, tight, color-blocked sweaters, Bicentennial Ray-Bans, and all things Bavarian.

Below, some favorite vintage ski accommodations across the West. Don’t forget your Glockenspiel.

Tyrolean Lodge, Aspen, CO
It may come as a shock that Aspen has a classic ski lodge that’s remained little-changed in atmosphere or ski-town spirit since its opening in 1970, but the Tyrolean is just that place. Located several minutes’ walk from the slopes, this no-frills, family-owned chalet is one of the best deals in town, with rooms starting at $155/night; some with kitchenettes. The rooms have been upgraded to be more modern, but the decor and vibe is still vintage Tyrol ski culture. Love.

Tamarack Lodge
, Mammoth Mountain, CA
This small, mid-century property overlooking Twin Lakes is on the California Register of Historic Places, and caters to the cross-country crowd. It has both European guesthouse style rooms, historic, refurbished cabins (see photo above), and from December through April, ski-in/out access. If the town of Mammoth is too hectic and soulless for you, consider this a peaceful alternative to the mainstream.
strawberry lodgeStrawberry Lodge, Kyburz, CA
Highway 50 Tahoe road-trip regulars will be familiar with this former Pony Express stop (right). Located off the side of the road in the nano-community of Kyburz, Strawberry is 20 minutes from South Shore. It’s seriously old-school, in that musty, funky way, with bad taxidermy, historical oddities, and is a much-loved Lake Tahoe institution.

With 31 rooms starting at just $49 a night (some are European style, with a shared bath), it’s hard to pass up, especially when you consider the proximity to all manner of vices, ranging from drinking (please don’t attempt to drive back) and gambling, to outdoor recreation. I love it because it’s one of the last remnants of old Tahoe, in a pastoral mountain setting. Strawberry also offers cross-country skiing, and the restaurant and bar can get hopping, sometimes with live music.
sun valley lodge
Sun Valley Lodge, Idaho
Built in 1936 at America’s first destination ski resort (with the world’s first chairlifts), the SVL was considered cutting-edge. It offered “every amenity a skier could possibly imagine.” Today, the 148-room property has been completely refurbished into a luxury hotel, complete with glass-encased swimming pool, yet it retains its majestic timber-and-stone facade and stately atmosphere.
P.S. Hemingway slept here.

Timberline Lodge, Mt. Hood, OR
Celebrating its 76th year, this National Historic Landmark (lobby, right) was built at a time when American heritage and the spirit of adventure crashed head-on with the Great Depression. FDR heralded the lodge as a “testament to the workers on the rolls of the Works Progress Administration,” which funded most of the property’s construction. The lodge shut down twice, once during WWII, and again in 1955, as it had fallen into disrepair. Under a new lessee, it was restored to grandeur and reopened later that year.

Located less than 90 minutes from Portland, Mt. Hood is a favorite local’s ski area. Timberline is built in the classic Pacific Northwestern lodge style, constructed primarily by hand of native timber and rock. The bright rooms are upscale rustic, with wood paneling, thick comforters, and stone fireplaces: all the trappings for a cozy getaway.

Alta Peruvian Lodge
, UT
Located at one of Utah’s premier ski resorts, this three-story wooden lodge had an unlikely start as a pair of barracks buildings in Brigham. They were relocated to Alta in eight pieces, and reconstructed into a 50-room lodge that opened in 1948. In 1979, an architect was hired to gussy up the property, although by today’s standards, it retains a retro Alpine charm (the kelly-green shutters decorated with Edelweiss, for example).

Rooms are straightforward and more motel than mountain lodge, but a fantastic deal, starting at $129 for a dorm bed. Prices include all meals, served family style in the lodge dining room, and free shuttle service to Alta Mountain and Snowbird. There are also twin and queen rooms with a shared or private bath, as well as bedroom suites. As for why the property is called the Peruvian? No one knows, although possibly it’s for a nearby landmark, Peruvian Creek.
Nordic Inn
Nordic Inn, Crested Butte, CO
Reopened on December 15, 2012, under new ownership, this beloved, 28-room Alpine lodge (right) opened over 50 years ago. Located just 500 yards from the slopes, the Nordic has refurbished half of its spacious rooms, which are now kitted out with hardwood floors, down comforters and pillows, and gorgeous Colorado beetle kill pine woodwork. The remaining rooms (which are a colorful ode to the ’80s, and a screaming deal for ski-in lodging) will be redone by June 1.

P.S. Ski lodges aren’t just for winter! Many are open year-round, and summer is also peak season for outdoor recreation.

[Photo credits: Tamarack, Mammoth Mountain Ski Area; Strawberry, 50Cabins.COM; Sun Valley, Sun Valley Resorts; Nordic Inn, Ken Stone]

Allegiant Air Offers Two-For-One Deal To Telluride Ski Resort

penniesBay Area- and Arizona-based snow lovers, rejoice! Allegiant Air, in collaboration with the Telluride Montrose Regional Air Organization, Telluride Ski Resort and Crested Butte Mountain Resort, is offering non-stop, two-for-one airline tickets. Travelers can fly to Montrose Regional Airport (70 miles from Telluride; Colorado Mountain Express is the local shuttle), via either Oakland International or Phoenix-Mesa airports.

Deals of this type are unheard of when it comes to premier ski destinations; as a former Telluride resident, I can attest to that. Even better, Allegiant is offering one-way fare from Phoenix starting as low as $46.99 one way ($93.98 round trip; flight times vary). Flights from Oakland start at $49.99 one way ($99.98 round trip, ditto), all winter long.

The Montrose flights began December 15, and conclude April 3, and are based upon availability. Tickets must be purchased by February 28, 2013, for the two-for-one offer, for use by April 3, 2013. For a complete flight schedule, click here.

But wait: there’s more! Telluride Ski Resort and Crested Butte Mountain Resort have launched an Ultimate 6 Pass, a 6-day pass good for three days of skiing and riding at each resort. That means you can use the centrally located Montrose airport for travel arrangements, and hit two of the Rockies’ most epic mountains in one vacation.

[Photo credit: Flickr user r-z]